Nashville Mayor Cooper faces blowback over tours of homeless communities

Metro Council members and advocates for the unhoused call the tour ‘tone deaf’ and ‘horrific’

By: - November 9, 2021 5:00 am
Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On Friday, Metro Nashville Councilmember Colby Sledge opened an email from Mayor John Cooper’s office and was stunned to read it. 

Sledge and other council members received an invitation to tour areas throughout Nashville where large numbers of unhoused people reside — homeless encampments, as they are sometimes called. 

 Sledge called the tour a tone deaf approach to the issue of homelessness. 

Colby Sledge. Metro Councilmember, District 17 (Photo from Sledge Strategies)
Colby Sledge. Metro Councilmember, District 17. (Photo from Sledge Strategies)

“It’s pretty horrifying,” he added. 

One park scheduled for the tour on Tuesday is Azafran Park in Sledge’s District 17, which no longer has an encampment of unhoused people due to months-long efforts to reduce crime in an area with elementary schools. 

The Metro Council public events page lists several of the tours.

Judith Tackett, a longtime advocate for unhoused people in Nashville and a trusted member of the social services community, resigned as director of the Homeless Impact Division in late October. Abigail Dowell, the division’s assistant director, resigned two weeks prior to Tackett. Cooper appointed Jay Servais, Nashville Office of Emergency Management District Chief, as interim director after Tackett resigned. 

But Nashville officials have been working on solutions to provide housing for 580 homeless people, including using federal housing vouchers and mobile housing initiatives, said Andrea Fanta, Cooper spokesperson. 

Cooper’s office is currently collaborating with the Office of Emergency Management to create cold-weather shelters and discussing funds to develop more permanent housing, and last week, Metro Nashville Council passed several resolutions to direct $1,933,000 of American Rescue Plan funding into 20 homeless encampments. 

About $603,000 would go into purchasing equipment intended to create a cleaner and safer environment among homeless encampments–such as trash removal, lighting and sanitizing equipment– but another $480,000 would go into purchasing surveillance equipment in an effort to reduce crime in homeless encampments.

But several council members called the legislation a waste of time and city resources.

“Some of us are killing ourselves incentivizing creative homeless housing,” said Sledge.   “We should be focusing our efforts on creating real housing instead of tours.”

“I don’t understand how this solves anything,” said District 30 Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda, who voted against the legislation.

The idea of a ‘tour’ of homeless encampments that doesn’t involve the voices, input or leadership of residents and treats human beings like wild animals is not only problematic, it’s utterly demoralizing,” said Open Table Nashville via Twitter.

After learning that there were already surveillance cameras in some areas, Sepulveda and others asked for more data on crimes solved via camera but were told the Metro Nashville Police Department does not collect this type of data. 

“We are in this situation because we lack resources, affordable housing and a willingness to do more,” said Sepulveda.

A vote on the legislation has been delayed until the next council session on Nov. 16. 

In the meantime, Cooper’s administration invited council members to visit the homeless encampments in order to gain approval for the legislation, a tactic viewed negatively by advocates for the unhoused. 

“The idea of a ‘tour’ of homeless encampments that doesn’t involve the voices, input or leadership of residents and treats human beings like wild animals is not only problematic, it’s utterly demoralizing,” Open Table Nashville, a non-profit homeless outreach organization, via Twitter.   

Also problematic, continued the thread, was the Cooper administration offering council members police escorts and utility terrain vehicles to go further into the camps. 

“The leaders of the service agencies who consented and contributed to this plan should be ashamed,” added Open Table Nashville. 

Several Nashville officials have announced their refusal to participate in the tour, including Sepulveda, Sledge and Vice-Mayor Jim Shulman. “I do not believe that this is the proper way to understand the situations involving outdoor homelessness, which can be extremely complicated,” wrote Shulman in an email to other council members.

 Homeless advocates asked council members to vote against the use of ARP funds for demolition and surveillance equipment in metro parks legislation.

“The solution to homelessness doesn’t entail bulldozers, surveillance cameras, or inhumane tours. The solution is simple: housing ends homelessness,” said Lindsey Krinks, co-founder of Open Table Nashville, in a press release.

Instead, Cooper should focus more effort into providing low-income housing and beginning construction of more than 80 units north of downtown, which Krinks said Cooper promised to do more than two years ago. 

“We also want to see the Mayor’s Office invest $10 million more for permanent supportive housing for the residents of encampments instead of ripping apart the only homes they know,” she added.



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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.